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School attendance – Strategies for tackling persistent absence

Photograph of angry-looking teenage girl

As recent events fuel a range of student attendance issues, Paul Buckland looks at how schools can tackle those absence figures

Paul Buckland
by Paul Buckland
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The post-pandemic challenges facing secondary schools are many and varied. As a leader, it’s daunting to have to prioritise and plan when so many issues demand your urgent attention.

The funding announced in last year’s Autumn Statement, while better than expected, still won’t cover teacher pay rises and schools’ utility bills, nor the costs of food, materials and estate maintenance. Leaders will be stretched to the absolute limits of their resourcefulness to ensure the continued financial viability of schools.

The most important priority will always be students’ wellbeing, of course – but where to start with that? Well, we can begin by making sure they’re actually in school…

Absence rates

We need to address the attendance crisis that’s affecting the profession – from EYFS right up to sixth form. Literacy levels, maths ability, socialisation, verbal skills – low attendance exacerbates all these, while compounding the disadvantage gap.

Data from the government’s attendance dashboard shows that during the 2021-22 academic year, secondary attendance dropped to as low as 82%, peaking at 92% in the summer term – an absence rate of between 18% and 8%.

The most up to date absence figure for state secondary schools is 8.7% (5.3% authorised, and 3.4% unauthorised), compared to an overall rate of absence of 4.7% in 2018-19. The data for SEND students is even more of a concern.

We know that persistent absence (amounting to 10% or more of all sessions) has a significant impact on GCSE performance. Pre-pandemic, pupils who failed to achieve the benchmark 9-4 in English and maths had an absence rate of 8.8%. Among those who did, the absence rate was 5.2%.

Only 35.6% of students deemed persistent absentees achieved the threshold. If we want to avoid limiting young people’s life chances, we have to find ways of getting them back into classrooms and reverse these trends.

Attendance strategies

Various creative and innovative ways of achieving this have been attempted. I’ve listed a few below which have met with some success, but context is key – what works well in school A may have no impact at all in school B. That said, it’s also the case that every child is unique, and that it’s difficult to know what will work on an individual level without first trying it out.

1. Know your data

Analyse the platform you use for recording attendance and try to identify patterns. Is it Y8 girls? Does attendance decline on Friday mornings? Might there be a timetabling issue? How are the FSM figures? Focus on any readily identifiable hotspots and individuals.

2. Talk to families

Ensure that parents and carers understand the importance of attendance and its impact on outcomes. Information events in school and targeted parental communications should highlight the consequences of missing even small periods of time, especially in key years.

3. Celebrate attendance

There are many – myself included – who are guilty of reprimanding poorly attending students on the day they return, by pointing out the damage they’re doing to themselves. This is completely the wrong approach!

Instead, welcome them and say how good it is to see them. Offer support and encouragement. As a leader, make sure that staff do the same, particularly form tutors.

I can recall one Y11 girl who had been absent for her mocks, arriving the following week with a defiant look in her eye as she saw me at the gate. She fully expected a rebuke from me – so imagine her surprise when I, swallowing my bile, welcomed her back with a smile and expressed hopes that she was okay.

Following some of the other strategies outlined here, her attendance subsequently improved and she later turned up for all of her exams.

4. Make it an occasion

In-school events around attendance, such as assemblies and awards ceremonies, can help emphasise the impact of absence on life chances, while rewarding those with good and improving attendance. Certificates/postcards sent home will ensure parents and carers are involved, and help them see that attendance both matters and is rewarded.

I organised end of term/year raffles and prize draws for those who hit their targets, and even attempted to adapt the quiz show Deal or No Deal for those students with the most improved attendance. The latter caused mayhem in the hall, but was great fun…

5. Acknowledge the issue

Persistent absence is easy to fall into, especially post-pandemic. Children have become accustomed to being at home, and to a degree, parents have become used to having them home. Many have been stressed by their return to school and the vicious cycle of falling behind and feeling they can never catch up.

It’s therefore vital that teachers take time to talk to returning students about any gaps in their learning, and offer additional support in lessons so that they don’t feel isolated. Students I’ve spoken with in lessons often describe missing the previous lesson and not knowing what’s going on.

I saw this just recently in a Y10 science lesson. A student wasn’t writing anything during the ‘fast four’ starter, so I wandered over to them – she’d switched off and looked glum.

If these students are unable to participate in retrieval exercises, then the battle is effectively lost at the start of the lesson. It’s tough for colleagues to do, but a quick word from the teacher that they will speak with them later, or pairing them with another student will show that they’re acknowledged, and that the problem will be addressed.

6. Watch out for family holidays

Family holidays can present significant problems. Hopefully, outlining to parents and carers the likely impact on their children in terms of outcomes will prevent the issue from coming up, but many parents do ultimately prioritise financial concerns over their children’s education.

There can also be complicating factors in some cases, such as siblings at schools with different holiday times – an issue exacerbated by the freedoms academies have to set their own term times at variance with LA dates. Sticking to the LA timetable, and attempting to ensure consistency with other schools throughout the catchment area may at least reduce the impact.

A safeguarding issue

We mustn’t forget that attendance is a safeguarding issue. Children not in school are likely to underachieve, and it’s not possible to know if they’re safe, so it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.

My approach has largely involved securing cooperation and compliance through debate and encouragement. When this doesn’t work, schools and LAs have the option to impose fines under the 1996 Education Act, though this can be a double-edged sword.

Relationships with families are the cornerstone of effective education, and should therefore remain positive wherever possible – yet taking a formal, punitive route shouldn’t be discounted, especially when a child’s safety may be at risk.

Above all, school staff have to be resilient, consistent and persistent. At times, it can feel immensely frustrating to take two steps forward and four steps back. You might crack it with one group after months, only for data to emerge from elsewhere that puts you back at square one.

Finally, remember that for some children, 100% attendance is an impossible and unfair expectation. Certain mental and physical health conditions demand sensitive handling, variation of timetabling and alternative provision where appropriate. It’s a delicate balancing act, but if you put the children first, you won’t go far wrong.

Paul Buckland is a recently retired secondary headteacher

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